Today, it is common knowledge that a high-quality antivirus tool is essential on devices that connect to the internet. The web is simply too insecure — filled with all manner of dangers that threaten the safety of one’s financial savings, private data, and more — for a savvy user to risk connecting and exploring without adequate protection. Today, you can find some of the strongest antivirus solutions at affordable prices for home users.
However, this was not always the case. The internet was plagued by viruses and worms for years before anyone thought of developing a tool to fight cyber infection and attack. Here is a brief history of antivirus solutions and the viruses that inspired their creation.
The First Viruses
Few computer users today would be able to recognize the very first computers developed in the 1940s; as large as a room and requiring punch cards to operate, these devices were extremely rare but formed the foundation of the high-speed, pocket-sized computing devices we use today. By the 1970s, computers were slightly smaller, more widespread, and composed of familiar elements, like screens, to facilitate use.
At this point, computer experts were experimenting with different types of programs to test the limits of computing machines — and one of those experiments included developing a self-replicating program, dubbed a virus. Their creation, the Creeper virus, successfully replicated itself on any host machine it accessed, displaying the message, “I’M THE CREEPER. CATCH ME IF YOU CAN!” but otherwise causing no harm.
The same can’t be said for wild viruses, which were computer viruses developed in a non-experimental capacity and launched outside the confines of a single machine or laboratory. Notoriously created by a 9th grader as a joke, Elk Cloner spread via floppy disk, infecting new disks to spread to different computers. Again, Elk Cloner did nothing worse than display a taunting poem after a certain amount of time, but because virus scanners or cleaners were not available, those infected by the virus were largely at a loss for how to remove the code from their machines.
The First Antiviruses
As soon as computer scientists realized that self-replicating computer programs were possible, they similarly realized the need for antivirus tools. Viruses created in computer laboratories often had purpose-made virus cleaners created for those machines; for example, the computers infected with Creeper were also infected with Reaper, another virus designed to wipe the Creeper code. However, for viruses made and deployed in the wild, victims had little recourse.
By the 1980s, many different viruses were circulating computing machines around the world, spread almost entirely by compromised floppy disks. In 1987, a German computer security expert devised a program for eliminating a virus called Vienna, which infected .com files on DOS systems. This is the first documented use of an antivirus program to successfully remove a virus. By the end of the year, no fewer than five computer security companies would release their own versions of antivirus software, which was sold to computer users as a must-have tool for detecting and eradicating unwanted malicious programs. One of these companies was the American computer security company, McAfee.
The Cyber Arms Race
From 1988 into the 1990s, the antivirus industry grew exponentially. Companies around the world emerged as computer security providers for their regions, helping computer users stay safe from local threats — before the internet allowed malware to spread far and wide.
Unfortunately, the emergence of antivirus solutions prompted hackers to develop more sophisticated attack programs, which caused more damage to infected devices. In turn, antivirus tools became more robust, defending devices and data against more than just viruses. What emerged through Y2K and the early years of the 21st century was an arms race between cybersecurity professionals and cybercriminals, with either group striving to develop stronger technology to best the other. As yet, no clear winner has emerged — though antivirus programs are certainly better than ever at keeping users safe.
In the coming decades, the arms race is likely to escalate with the adoption of incredible technologies like artificial intelligence. Some security experts doubt that we will ever develop security solutions strong enough to disincentivize all cybercrime. Thus, users of all computing devices — indeed, all devices connected to the internet — need to invest in high-quality antivirus in the future.